Reducing physical distractions in an open workspace

I often post about website redesigns and how their new structure and layout make for an improved user experience. Today I’m going to give some insights in to a redesign of the physical Web department workspace and how it makes for a more productive staff experience.

Old Web Communications “pit”

The Web Communications area is located in an open space in the middle of the Marketing Department. The location has its advantages as we are a short walking distance to anyone in marketing. But that also means anyone else in the office is walking past us every time they visit someone else. There are also four entrances/exists that create traffic right through the middle of our space. The space is pictured above, shame on me for not taking more “before” shots of the office.

A lot of articles the last few years have praised the “open office space” as the holy grail for collaboration and serendipitous interactions. In theory it may be that it allows for that interaction, but if you’ve ever worked in one you know differently. We are huge fans of 37 Signals, a software development firm out of Chicago, for various reasons. We work under a lot of the same constraints, digital environment, write our own products, have clients (they use to), do customer support, training, simple approach to solutions, and everyone has their specialty. The open office space sounded like it was the perfect environment, but we have found we have the same issues as 37 Signals: distractions are the devil to productivity.

If you have been to our space before you know we typically work in the dark (you might not actually recognize it with the lights on, below) and everyone has headphones on. That does a lot to help focus but there is one thing that is out of our control, the constant flow of traffic past desks and occasional comments that break up the work day.

The two desks right in the middle and corner of the “T” that our space creates were being distracted the most. We set out to reduce the number of distractions while still living in the constraints of our space. We don’t have the luxury of moving to a new space like 37 Signals but were able to make some tweaks.

New office setup


What we did and the impact

A few weeks ago I moved my office and now sit in a space separate with Rommel, our project manager. This allows us to talk in isolation without distracting everyone else in the pit. It also forces Rommel to use digital communications to get quick answers to things instead of  walking over to someones desk and distracting them. When someone really needs to concentrate these digital communications are the easier to turn off.

My old office was turned in to a Web conference room but we quickly realize it didn’t get used much as we thought, marketing already has a conference room with a projector that we have access to. We decided to move Jenn, owner of one of the high traffic corner desks, in to a single office since she needs to be able to isolate herself to write and talk to clients on the phone. So far that has worked great, she has been able to concentrate and it has reduced the noise from phone calls in the open Web area a lot.

Chris, was also at a corner desk with a lot of traffic. He needs to be able to get in to flow and solve complex problems and this wasn’t the best spot for him. We ended up moving him back toward the other developers and shifting his desk so his peripheral vision wasn’t a distraction.

Lastly, because there is a hall way in the middle of our space we have separated the office in half, designers/content editors on one side and developers on the other. This allows the developers to collaborate easily without leaving their chairs, and we wanted do the same for the designers. We moved the designers so they are right next to each other and can talk and see each others screens without having to get up.

But isn’t the conference table in the middle distracting? Yes, yes it is. But we have no where else to put it at the moment and the staff isn’t shy about telling people they are too loud and to move to the marketing conference room down the hall.

Did it work?

So far so good. In the past few weeks the Web staff have reported that their ability to concentrate has gone up. Because those two corner desks have been replaced by open space the foot traffic has not had a reason to stop and comment on their way through our space.

Productivity is a moving target, everyone has their own methods and motivations to get in to flow. Tailoring our space to encourage this helps everyone, our staff, our clients and the university.

Continue reading “Reducing physical distractions in an open workspace”

Launch: Office of International Programs

We just launched the Office of International Programs (OIP) website. It is an umbrella website that all international sites are linked from. These include Office of International Students and Scholars, English Language Institute and Study Abroad.

The site is intended to be informational about the department and what it oversees and not a destination for students. It really only has four pages of text and keeps within the same overall look of the international program sites. The main goal is to provide contact and information about the office.

The news and events pull from all the departments within OIP so they don’t have to be managed separately. There is no image galleries or profiles of the staff. It is just a real basic site with an impacting design. The site never existed before so this is a starting point and it may expand in the future.

View the Office of International Programs website at:

Office Experiment: Mold Test

Since we work in a “pit” environment when one person gets sick we try to separate them from the rest of the group. Recently though a few people have been getting sick more often than normal. We decided to investigate by having the Office of Environmental Health and Safety come out to test the air. They came out but were only going to test the dust in the air. We were looking for mold.

So Tom purchased a do-it-yourself mold test kit. The test was simple: put a petri dish by a vent for 15 minutes and then wait 48 hours. It was Friday so it could sit all weekend but we were sad we couldn’t watch its progress. Luckily, Jenn had a webcam and we hooked it up to take a picture every minute. The webcam was kinda crappy so the the video/images came out pretty blurry. Also we had a light on it that caused some condensation.

Time lapse video of mold sample

What happens next

Now that we have this sample we are sending it in for analysis. As you can see from the picture below the mold has begun to grow legs. We are very interested to learn what we are breathing in. As soon as we get the results we will be sure to update everyone.

Please welcome Brett! Our new student developer

A few weeks ago I put a call out for a student developer looking to work with us. The response was awesome, thank you everyone who inquired! Unfortunately we only had one spot and that position was filled by Brett Brainered.

Brett is a senior in the computer science program and has done web work for the last few years. He started two or so weeks ago and I just haven’t had the chance to post about it. Brett jumped right in to adding tools to our CMS and you should start seeing some of the work he is doing shortly.

His first project is expanding the report and maintenance areas for each site in the CMS. We are adding a “page analyzer” which will inspect the content on each page within a site. Check it for broken, development or slow responding links and images. It will then validate the content and/or clean it up with HTML Tidy.

We have been doing quite a bit of redesigns lately and often the structure of a redesign changes from the current site. The page analyzer will have the ability to download an Excel sheet for us to start a content audit. Once we determine where each page will transition to we can put that information in the CMS and have this tool copy the pages to the new development site in the new location for the department to begin working on cleaning it up. It will be a big help to have this migration done automatically.

Whiteboard Learning

The first thing we did with Brett was to walk him through the tools and flow of how our pages execute. We don’t have any official documents where this is explained. We like to keep our process as agile as possible so things may change faster than we can document them. Probably not the ideal situation but it works.

We do all our teaching on whiteboards. Whiteboards are the best way to show an idea visually as it matures and offers the ability to change and manipulate things as you step through and learn. I personally have probably 100+ pictures of whiteboard drawings which explain various UI interfaces to code execution.

Below is the flow of our page execution for our web apps. Not all sites go through this same process, just our large applications. It might look a little confusing, especially since it’s pretty sloppy, but you can get an idea of the flow.

I think I will start posting more whiteboards on the blog. After looking through them I realize how useful they are in explaining why we do the things we do. The decisions behing UI elements and user flow through a site are told as a story on the board and that is really valuable information.

Creating a culture of community

My position at the university allows me to meet with just about anyone and everyone on campus. It also allows me and the Web Communications team to get a bird’s eye view of how everyone on campus works internally and externally.

I was thinking about our team culture this morning as I looked around the office. I do my best work early in the morning so I tend to get in before everyone else. The Web and print areas are slightly different than the rest of the marketing office. The first thing you’ll notice is we work in large open areas instead of individual offices. The more I thought about it the more I realized how much we really do as a group and how all our decisions are based on benefiting the most amount of people.

Group Culture

Some things you’ll notice while walking through the Web area is the lack of walls and the abundance of whiteboards. All content, programming, and design brainstorming happens for all to see and comment on. Just because we are making a decision about how to write a headline it doesn’t mean a designer or developer wouldn’t have some insight and add to the discussion.

Beyond that it’s the little things you probably won’t notice at first glance. Between ten of us we share four phones. I have one, Jenn, our Web content administrator has one, the designers share one and the developers share one. We used to have less but added one for the designers in the past year as they started to become primary contacts for our clients around campus.

You’ll also notice we don’t have a printer on everyone’s desk. We actually don’t have a printer at all, we got rid of it a few months ago. The decision to remove it was two fold, we didn’t see the need to have a printer running and purchase toner for it when there is already one in the center for the marketing office. On the web we don’t print very much and when we do it gives us an excuse to get away from our desk for a few minutes.

Lastly between us ten we only have three trash cans. This may sound unnecessary to think about but it comes down to needs. There’s no need for all of us to have a trash can with just one or two items in it each day. The custodians come by twice a day and picking up ten trash cans would add an extra 2-3 minutes just in our department. We can walk a few extra steps to throw our stuff away which in the end keeps the cleaning crew happy and us from being lazy.

Use only what you need

History should not be a motivation for doing something. Question what is actually required to accomplish a task. If it makes sense for everyone to work in separate offices or have their own phone that’s okay. But if you can get by with a smaller space or less office “things” it’s less you have to worry about on a day-to-day basis. In the end you will find more time to focus on actual work that makes a difference.

Final note, the pic above shows the office with the lights on, this is typically not the case if you come visit us.

Web office makeover


Unfortunately I couldn’t find a good photo of how the design side looked before the construction. The two above don’t do it justice. I know I have one and will update the post when I find it. In the above photo we removed the wall that separated the web area from the rest of marketing. The goal with the project was to give the Web area more breathing room. We also have a conference table and book shelf which would not fit in our old area.


Above you can see how taking down the wall has opened up our area and allowed for an additional desk plus the conference table. If you have been in the Web area before you know we work with the lights off so seeing everything lit up might look odd even if we didn’t expand.  The new space will allow us to have a true brainstorming area with whiteboard, conference table and projector. Something we need far too often when analyzing project needs and designs.